Wrestling in MMA, and the bright future of BJJ

There is no combat sport that puts more people into high level MMA than wrestling. Boxers tend to stick to their guns, kickboxers can transition but do so much less frequently, and gone are the days of BJJ dominating the martial arts world – this, however, might be changing in the not so distant future, and I can explain why.

Lets get to why wrestling is so far ahead of the others. It is, arguably, the most important skill for MMA – you can decide where the fight takes place, whether you strike or go to the ground, and when you do end up on the ground you ensure that you end up on top. Takedowns are such an essential skill, if you lack the ability to defend them or execute them you can rapidly find yourself out of your depth. Look at Max Holloway vs Brian Ortega – for all Brian’s skill on the floor, the fact that he couldn’t latch on to Holloway meant that these skills were next to useless. It might be the case that Max stayed on his feet due to better distance control rather than better wrestling, but the point still stands. This is sadly the defeat of many jiu-jitero in MMA, Vinny Maghaleas and Demian Maia to name a couple.

Another reason it develops phenomenal athletes? Mindset. This varies from person to person and gym to gym, but there is something very powerful about the way wresting is taught that makes people tough. One you have learned to grind through the grim spots, to grit your teeth and bare it, work through the struggle day in and day out, there’s not a lot that will stop you. When someone is battered and bruised, but still needs to drag themselves into training to get those rounds in, it is the wrestling mindset that will get them there. When someone is down on points and needs to smash it out to win the fight despite the odds that face them, a wrestler is the one who is going to do it. These are the people who are going to get into the UFC, and the people who are going to climb their way to the top. This mindset doesn’t have to be specific to wrestling, but at the moment there’s no other combat sport that does it so well or so frequently.

For all the benefits of wrestling, I don’t think it’s successful in MMA because of the martial art aspects. I think wrestlers are successful because wrestling gyms are athlete factories. The way that people are taken through drilling in a structured, methodical way is fantastic, and probably the best way to improve your skills. The focus on conditioning is of huge benefit, and something that I think every combat sport should emulate. Not only that, but the fact that in America this is taught at a college level, with everyone looking to become a champion, I think it does wonders for the sport. Being around people with that same drive and that same attitude, looking for this success, it is not surprising that this sport can create people who excel in any walk of life. The fact that it is taught in colleges and universities means that so many are brought into the fold at an early age, taught to be competitive athletes for years and years, is it surprising at all that they dominate in the UFC? If nothing else it’s a numbers game.

Why do I think this might apply to BJJ then? With the introduction of it into schools in Abu Dhabi, I think a lot of the wrestling attributes could translate over. Suddenly, there are so many more people learning it, so many more people looking to excel in it, and so many people looking at the best, most efficient way to become brilliant, BJJ could easily start churning out athletes in this part of the world. Coming back to the mindset aspect, there is no reason that BJJ gyms can;t take this grinding approach. Most do not, which is one of the reasons for the popularity of BJJ – it is that much more accessible to the casual practitioner – but that is not what makes a champion. On the other hand, hearing about the regimens in the Blue Basement or at Atos, I fully believe that BJJ can embrace the same wrestling mentality if it needs to.

This avenue of bringing it into curriculums might be the secret to bringing BJJ back to the top of the MMA world. It might simply be a numbers game. Now there are many times the number of people involved in BJJ, in a learning environment and as more than just a hobby, many might start looking to become professionals, and might start looking at the UFC for a path to go down. With so many people involved, you’re so much more likely to get the top athletes, and iron sharpens iron, as they say, so the more you get the better they all become. Bringing BJJ into schools, wherever in the world it happens, might be the way to put BJJ at the top of the pyramid again.

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Diminishing Returns

Intuitively, you might think that the someone who spends more time in a martial art would be better, a simple equation of more years in means more skill out. This doesn’t seem to be the case though. Even those who start martial arts a little later in life seem to reach the top, despite their years less training, and it’s not just freak athletes like B J Penn and Deontay Wilder who get there in 3 year. Starting as a child is no guarantee of success over older starters, and starting as an adult doesn’t mean you’ll forever be lagging behind.

Look at Thailand, for example. There, training can start at childhood, the national sport not football but Muay Thai. Most quit before they hit their athletic prime, sure, but many do not. Some like Buakaw continue on, and is the world of K1 and Muay Thai dominated by these lifelong martial artists? Not even close. Buakaw is one of a few. Despite years less training, farangs can hang with native Thai fighters in any gym you go to, and this is reflected at the highest of levels.

I think there are three main reasons for this. Firstly, people burn out. Fighting is hard on he body – smart not hard is the way to train, and there’s nobody who will train more like a moron than a teenager in combat sports. Those years of sloppy technique and reckless training methods can have a great impact, and starting early on only compounds those effects on the growing body. I think it takes a certain level of maturity to accept that going ham 24/7 might not be the most effective thing to do. This sort of practice is going to have lasting impacts, and everything you do is going to boost or cut down on your potential level. Eventually, you’re going to wear out, especially in a sport like wrestling which is notorious for it’s grinding effect.

Secondly, people hit their peak. I believe in growth, but there are, unfortunately, limits to just how skilled or how athletic somebody can be. People may reach these limits after several years, and then just carry on as they are, the benefit of each successive year becoming less and less. Perhaps you can add additional skills or fill holes in your game, but ultimately continuous training will result in diminishing returns. There is only so good one can get, and eventually those skills you learned will begin to drop away and be forgotten. As you get better and better it gets harder and harder to add anything new, and when you get to the peak there’s only so long you can stay there. Everyone has a ceiling, a limitation to their ability, not one that most people reach, but most growth comes in the first few years of training. The longer you go, the slower your growth becomes.

Finally, people get bored. If burn out is the limitation of the body, this would be the limitation of the mind. Nobody wants to do the same thing forever, no matter what it is. To be the best you need to keep at it, grind, do it day in day out, and it’s going to wear on a person. Look at Anthony Johnson, who gave up so close to the top, who if nothing else just needed a break. He’s been competing so long he just didn’t want it anymore, and the earlier you start, the earlier you’re going to reach your breaking point.

This might sound pessimistic, but it’s not. It means that if you take some time to find your calling and find your style, you’re not limited by your late start. Whether it’s training smarter, having more natural potential, or being in the right place at the right time, if you start as an adult you can still make a break to the top. The perfect system would be to coincide your peak in skills with your athletic prime, but with all these reasons putting a limit on your level of achievement it’s hard to enact this in reality. Everyone has that peak though, no matter who they are. In the end, its hard to tell how far you can go or how long you’ll want to push it, so its probably best to just get on with it and crush it as best you can.

Before the fight: WCMMA 28

Seventeen hours before the fight. It’s the middle of the night, we’re in a cheap hotel, my teammates and my coach are asleep. I’m knelt by the toilet, throwing up, sweating profusely, clammy, cold. I’m still not sure why – I didn’t feel too ill, bar the vomit, I hadn’t changed my diet for months running up to this, and when I have a mind to I really keep an eye on my body and what I put into it, so it’s all a bit of a mystery. Nonetheless, by the time I’m done my coach and one teammate are up and worrying. Concerned, we go to sleep for the second time. 

Eight hours before the fight. We slept in late, and it’s not long now before the weigh-in’s. One thing we probably all knew should have been done the day before? Ticket money. As a rule fighters aren’t the most organized, though, so rushing it out in the morning is how we do it. While our coach counts tickets and one teammate talks about the benefits of each animals milk I try to relax.  I’m still not feeling one hundred percent, but I say little, while people stress and fret about who sold what to who, and who owes money. We got it sorted, in the end, and move on. 

Six hours before the fight. I’m still not nervous, even as I step on the scales – I’m just hungry and a little dehydrated, and everything is pissing me off, every little thing seeming to go wrong. I know it’s not, I know people aren’t trying to be annoying, but I’m irritable and want to get on with it. I’ve wanted to get on with this fight  for weeks, and now the feelings have come to a head and I’ll snap at anything. Knowing why I feel annoyed does little to help with me feeling annoyed, and there’s not much to do but just get on with it. It’s strange that I’m not worried about the fight though – last time I stressed about the fight for weeks, thinking I could be knocked out, taken down, submitted in the first round and in embarrassing fashion. None of that bothered me this time though. For once, I believe I’m ready.

Four hours before the fight. I’m fed and hydrated at last, but despite my annoyance earlier I’m still not feeling the nerves. I just feel calm, prepared. My coach is worried about me, I understand why, but I lie and tell him that I feel fine. I’ve worked too hard for this, done too much, I’ve too much support and too man goals to let this slide now. We all seem a bit sleepy in that hall, so I just try to rest as best I can. Before other fights and other competitions I’ve not been so relaxed. I’ve found it hard to sleep because of nerves. Now I just struggle to sleep because I feel a little sick, but I lay down all the same and try to get some shuteye. 

One hour before the fight. The rules, the medical, I still don’t feel the nerves and wonder what’s wrong with me. Still, I do feel a bit sick, and I do worry about how my stamina is going to hold out. My corner-man runs over the plan – tire him out, get him against the cage, take him down, submit. I’m not really listening though, I’m just concerned about how ill I was the night before. How am I going to perform now? Perhaps I am nervous, and if I have the chance to end it quickly I will. I don’t need a three round war today. My coach checks the details from the medical – he says it show’s I’m not nervous, but I have no idea whether he’s lying to make me feel confident or what.

Thirty minutes before the fight. Wraps on, I’m dressed, warming up. Now I feel the nerves. People try to psyche me up. I visualize, warm up, breathe, and shout, and repeat it all again. I’m sweating again, not like before, this is the sweat from adrenaline and tension. I run through the counters I plan to use, pummel, drill, counter, pummel, drill. I take a second do breathe, not for lack of energy or need of oxygen, but to calm my pulse and my racing thoughts. I walk in a circle, and carry on with the warm up, controlling my lungs and my heart rate as best I can. In the changing rooms, we sit in a circle, and one teammate leads a prayer for us. I’m not a religious person, but out of every ritual to do with the fight this is my favorite, this is the one that touches me the most. Heads bowed, the four of us wait for a moment, and stand. This is our time.

Behind the curtain I’m standing now. The crowd is outside, I’ve got my coaches on my flanks, and one of the staff members in front of me. Entrance music comes on, and my opponent passes me. We bump fists as he does, a mark of respect, and he goes onto the ramp to the cheers of his crowd. I wait my turn, heart in my mouth. Breathe in. Pause. Breathe out. The music dies, and I feel my heartbeat. The promoter shouts my name into the microphone, my music comes on now, I breathe in deep through my nose. I wait a second, lungs full, paused, feeling the moment, and then snarl an animalistic noise. I pass through the curtains, and enter my arena.

Beginners are friends, not food

Ever struggle with beginners? Ever find the new guy doing weirdly well? It’s a strange experience, having someone come in ‘off the street’ and giving more trouble than someone who’s been training for months. This tends to be more of a thing with the striking arts, but can happen to grapplers as well, and though there is an easy, clear way to deal with the newbie, you really shouldn’t do it.

I think the reason people do so well early on is their lack of fear. They can swing for the fences, not realizing what can and can’t hurt them, their punches wild and unpredictable and therefore hard to deal with. A lot of what makes a technique good in striking is not just the damage you can inflict, but the damage you avoid taking. Defensive responsibility is an important, and often overlooked aspect early on in training. Next time you spar someone your level, notice that they stop coming forwards even if you hit them lightly (or at least they should) and notice that a complete novice can be the exact opposite. The experienced fighter knows what would have hurt them, and backs off because of it. The way to deal with a reckless beginner then? Pressure them. Be mean. Hit them. They’ll cover up, and if they don’t, they’ll take damage. If they’re not defending themselves, make them defend themselves, or punish them for not doing so. They’ll stop trying to take your head off one way or another.

BJJ can have a similar phenomenon, with beginners latching on to your head, your arms, stifling your movement and stopping you submitting them. The solution here? You’ve got two options. First, dominate position – it’s hard to submit anyone who is staying tight and defensive, but BJJ isn’t really about submitting your opponent, it’s about controlling them. It’s so common for people at the start of their BJJ journey to claim to be great defensively, but that mostly comes from a lack of understanding about the position they’re in. A beginner might stay alive by being defensive, but they wont do ‘well’. And as for your second option – be mean. If newbies are going to grind their elbows into your ribs and thighs, and make positions uncomfortable and unpleasant, do it back to them. If they’re going to stay tight and defensive, open them up with whatever you can.

So whichever martial art you’re in, if you’re dealing with beginners who are doing well out of ignorance, the solution is to be mean. And whichever sport you’re in, if you are dealing with beginners this way, you’re an asshole. Seriously, don’t do it. Unless they’re smashing people smaller than them and need a check of their own, there’s no reason.

Being upset that you didn’t destroy a beginner is completely born out of ego. And really, what do you gain out of it? I doubt your skills will improve from fighting people who don’t know what they’re doing. If you’re training for a fight/match/competition you shouldn’t be sparring those people, and if you’re not getting ready for something like that, what is gained from crushing them? They wont come back to the gym, the martial arts family wont grow, and someone is just going to end up upset because you wanted to feel big. If you’re the sort of person who does that, I wouldn’t want you training with me in any case.

The way to deal with beginners who are doing weirdly well? Beat them up. The thing to do with beginners who are doing weirdly well? Help them grow. You’ll learn, they’ll learn, and everyone wins.

You call that a fight? This is a fight.

What do you count as a fight? This question seems to come up a lot in the MMA/BJJ world. Not so long ago McGregor was using it to discredit boxing, more commonly it’s used by MMA fighters to put down BJJ, and then more self-defense oriented people might use it to discredit all of the above. People can get really hung up on the distinction, and some people get very offended if you say they’re not fighting, but why are we so eager to define something as a fight or not? And how should we decide?

We could start with the broadest definition – physical confrontation and competition. I think this has some merit, after all, watching a high pace grappling match can look much like a fight. Except this could potentially include all contact sport, rugby and basketball included, so I think by anyone’s definition this would be too broad. So if we then define it as sports predominantly using ‘combat’ techniques we could be left with things like wrestling and BJJ. In the former you are utilizing some of the most fundamental fighting techniques, as have been used for generations, and in the latter you are trying to submit an opponent, to render them defenseless. At its most basic level, submitting an opponent is them saying that you would have killed them, or broken their arm and then killed them, or something along those lines. Thinking about it, that’s a huge amount of trust to put in someone, and makes me feel a little bit odd about rolling with strangers. The only issue with this, is that BJJ just doesn’t seem like a fight to me. Before I get onto the mats, even in competition, it does not feel like a ‘fight’ – even with submissions the idea is not to hurt your opponent, it’s to put them in a position where they have no option but to give up, hurting or not. The fear of damage just isn’t there. It feels like a contest with far lower stakes, and I feel like a fight is something more than a grappling match.

So what about damage? If you define a fight as a competition where you are looking to win by damaging your opponent, I think you’re getting much closer to the truth. This is normally the argument used against Jiu-Jitero that think they’re fighting, and now means that only when you get to boxing and similar sports are you having a ‘fight’. Now there is the fear. Now there is the real worry about getting hurt. Now, rather than submitting your opponent and hopefully not damaging them, you’re hitting someone until their body gives up or someone steps in to save them. This feels more like the panic inducing, terrifying ‘fight’ that seems so much more real than a potentially fun grappling match. And yet, lately people have discredited boxing of its ‘fight’ label, claiming that only in MMA can you get a real fight.

So why MMA? I suppose it’s the number of tools at your disposal, and the much more lenient rules. Suddenly you bring in elbows, kicks, submissions and slams. There are no rules regarding knockdowns and 8 counts, you’re either knocked out or you keep on going. MMA too has a legitimate argument as being as close as you can get to a ‘real’ fight, but perhaps that’s where it falls apart – as close as. Because despite the potential for damage, there is a referee to save you. There are rounds. There are rules. There is sportsmanship. There might be fear at what will happen to you, but except in freak circumstances there’s no real danger of your opponent continuing to beat you long past when you have lost consciousness, no fear of death.

Perhaps then, the only ‘real’ fights are street fights, brawls without rules and where the stakes could be that much higher. This argument tends to upset the more touchy MMA fighters who might feel that it goes against their self image, but again, it has merit. People can argue for hours about whether something is a fight or not, if introducing any safety measures discredits it, but honestly, does it matter? I think the real question isn’t whether something is a fight or not, but what do you get out of it?

Debating semantics has always annoyed me (in life in general, not just fighting) because whether something is a fight or not I think it should be judged on its merits, not its label. I mean really, when you compete in MMA, or boxing, or anything else, if the idea is to overcome physical confrontation, fear, and challenge, why do you give a damn if it’s a ‘fight’ or not? This is a personal journey for any athlete, martial artist, or whatever else you call yourself, and other people’s opinions shouldn’t change that. I would probably count a fight based on the potential for damage argument, since that’s what’s going to introduce the nerves and the fear and the obstacles, but it’s not like it matters. If a BJJ competition does all these things, then good on you – who cares what someone else labels it? The name of something isn’t going to change what you get out of it, so don’t bother defining it. Worry less about a title, and more about what you get out of something. Your MMA match, fight, or whatever you call it isn’t going to change no matter what you call it. In short, it is what it is.

Enter the Trashtalker

The face of martial arts has changed pretty drastically over the years. Its been good for the growth of the sport to have the drama and the craziness, but I wonder if it’s started to go too far. What once helped the sport get mainstream recognition may now be limiting how far it can reach. 

I’m late to the party with this one, but after the shit-show that was the run up and post-fight fight of Khabib vs Connor I had to get a post out of some sort. In all honesty, I’m not that mad at either of them about what went down: they are fighters, they didn’t actually do anything that bad (bar the dolly incident), and I understand the reasons both of them have for what they’ve done of late. In order for the sport to progress though, this sort of thing needs to stop.

Let’s start with Khabib. Despite everyone freaking out about him attacking Dillon Danis, nothing that bad really happened. Oh sure, some people got punched, but they do this for a living. They do it for fun. They are used to it, and it’s not surprising then that nobody is filing any charges. Fighters are a weird community, but it’s generally accepted as code that you don’t sue for this kind of thing. It was pretty stupid that Khabib did this in the middle of however many thousand people there were in the arena, but tensions were running high and I’d be surprised if he considered the wider effects of what he was doing. In a way I’ve got more respect for him – he doesn’t bullshit, and he follows through and ‘defends his honor’, and he’s clearly the real deal. Most people put up a front and make a fake persona, but not this man, and that alone is something to respect. Besides, the only people upset that Danis got punched are people who don’t hear him talk.

I do, however, think that Khabib needs to be punished. Most people who train aren’t too bothered by him, but they’re not who we need to win over; we need public acceptance of MMA as a legitimate athletic endeavor, and at the moment we just aren’t getting there. Growth of the sport is good for everyone, but without appealing to a wider audience we’re just not going to get traction. Compare the public engagement of boxing with that of mixed martial arts – Anthony Joshua is on billboards, posters, talk shows and adverts, while not so long ago Michael Bisping was a British UFC champ with a fraction of that exposure. So I’ll admit that there are a few key differences between Bisping and AJ in terms of marketability, but I think the point still stands. Almost everyone knows Joshua and almost nobody knows his UFC counterpart, and I think everyone involved in mixed martial arts wants that to change.

Unfortunately though, the marketing plan for the UFC is too set in its ways. To an extent it works, but I think the trash talking and drama model is getting out of hand. It functions for a while – Conors antics generated the biggest fight in history after all – but if it boils over it sets us back so far. Listening to Justin Wren on the JRE, talking about a friend who watched the UFC, loved it, and then had it soured by that last brawl, really highlights the issue. We need engagement from the ‘casuals’. Those crazed press conferences might have drawn all the eyes to the event, but the eventual and not at all surprising conclusion probably turned a lot of people away from future ones. There needs to be some tempering of how far all the trash talking goes before it explodes again and we have to scramble to save what face we can. As much as I like shocking relatives by claiming to be a cage fighter, I do want to convince them that I’m a legitimate martial artist as well.

I don’t actually blame Conor that much. Unacceptable as what he was saying was, he’s just exploiting the system he’s in. It also looks like he understands where he’s gone ‘too far’, and I wonder if that was what made him tell Khabib ‘it’s only business’ – he just values wealth over being socially acceptable. Honestly, is that so surprising, or unusual? Calling him mean isn’t going to change the way he acts. If he’s just exploiting the system, we need to change the system, and maybe fit the UFC and western MMA as a whole to a different model.

Listening to Robin Black talk about One Championship is interesting. It’s got a different focus, about a connection with your ancestry, about a group of artists, not fighters. And think, when’s the last time you heard about a One Championship fighter leaping out of the cage and starting a brawl? This organization has a different philosophy at heart, and it shows. And what was it that got people into martial arts in generations past? Enter the Dragon did not involve the kind of nonsense that combat sports are marketed with nowadays, but might have inspired more people than any other piece of media in recent history. It was the honor and the discipline aspect that inspired people to begin their martial arts journeys, something a bit more inspiring that making money. If we want MMA to get more public recognition and acceptance we need a more One Championship approach from the UFC.

Sadly, I doubt it will happen. I don’t like to be a pessimist, but I just don’t see individual athletes possibly losing out on their personal wealth, and the UFC is not looking at that sort of long term growth of the sport. At the moment, western MMA is limiting its own growth with it’s current marketing strategy and we’re just going to get more and more of these controversies, like a bubble inflating and collapsing just as we start to get widespread recognition, starting again from five steps back. Even changing that strategy though, it will take years to get anywhere bigger, and people are going to loose money in the meantime -with careers only lasting a few years, fighters are never going to pay that short term price so the sport can grow in a few generations. With the UFC promoting and rewarding the sort of behaviors that lead to this post fight brawl, it’s almost inevitable that this will all happen again when someone gets pushed too far, or something gets out of hand, once again limiting the breakout into mainstream acceptance. I’d be very surprised if organizations change their money making formula at this point. The growth of our sport is limited as it is, and sadly, it’s not about to change.

The Gym of Hard Knocks

A common debate in the striking arts and MMA is how often, or even if, you should be sparring hard. Some people say that you should train how you fight, others think you should ensure longevity and lack of injury. As with most things, I expect the truth is somewhere in between. Consider AKA, home of greats like Daniel Cormier and Cain Velasquez – from all reports they train like savages, wars in the gym, sparring like they fight, and the gym brings out champions like no other. But look at the cost. They are notorious for pre-fight injuries, and it’s no surprise. Worse than that, Velasquez is broken, perhaps never to fight again; a champion once, now the recipient of surgery after surgery, his back so injured that he cannot compete. I suspect the optimum is somewhere a little less then, perhaps taking it a bit easier. Heavy enough to build a champion, but light enough to not break them.

Ask yourself, why would you fight? In the short term, is it for a career? I suspect the better way to earn a living is not being injured before fights. Not so long ago Max Holloway pulled out for ‘concussion-like symptoms’, which I have little doubt was brought on through hard sparring, and though everyone talks about Tony Furguson’s loss to an electric cable as a ‘freak accident’ you only need look at his training videos to see what might have weakened his leg. I cringe every time I see him deadlift. You need to fight to earn, whatever level you’re at, and being an unreliable fighter won’t look good in a promoters eyes. You need to experience some heavy sparring to get used to it, sure, but what’s the cost long term? You may win for a while, but it’s likely to be a short career.

There are other costs to consider. Bodies degrading is bad enough, but CTE is the thing I fear the most. It’s why I aim to use BJJ as my main tool as a martial artist, because even if I take a beating in fights I’ll take much less in training, which really is where most of the damage occurs. What’s the point in wining great victories if you can’t remember them in ten years time? If I were ever to open a gym, I would like to think it would be in the hopes of improving people’s lives, helping them to learn about themselves, not churning out champions at any cost. If people want to smash each other into punch-drunk messes that’s up to them, but I’ll never encourage it. It wasn’t so long ago that we lost the great Muhammad Ali to parkinsons, likely induced from his years of training. It’s sad to see heroes of the past degrading like that, and if it was someone who you knew, coached, or trained and sparred with, how will you feel then?

I am a huge fan of the movement towards lighter sparring in gyms. There are plenty of people who are successful at the highest levels without hard sparring, and even if the fighters produced are not so great it’ll likely improve people’s health dramatically. Not only that, but an improved public image is good for everyone involved. Lighter sparring is likely to make peoples lives better in the long run, and ultimately I think that’s what’s most important.

Ask yourself, what do you want to get out of training and competing, and what are you willing to give for it? Is a championship necessary for you to obtain, and if so, at what cost? I’ve got no definitive answers for you, but I think plenty of people are paying far too high a price for what they’re getting, which – lets be honest – isn’t usually a title. Stop having gym wars, stop taking shots to the head, and ask yourself, is it worth it?